After school, Emma asked her mother: "Why did the police shoot that man?"
Something Happened in Our Town is not simply a children's picture book; it is a resource for parents and other adults to use while trying to navigate the difficult conversations that need to take place with young children regarding issues of racial injustice, prejudice, and discrimination. In addition to the beautifully-illustrated story regarding two children who ask their separate families questions about a police shooting that occurred in their town, the book has pages of information directed at parents and caregivers which includes advice on how to approach and discuss this book with children, how to address racial injustice with children, an age-appropriate vocabulary guide, and sample dialogues between parents and children that serve as tips for how to handle when children may say something race-related (and possibly racist or otherwise problematic).
The three authors of this book are all psychologists who specialize in serving children and families, and who have worked together for over twenty years as faculty members of the Emory University School of Medicine. This book is published by the American Psychological Association.
Why is this book being challenged?
Per the American Library Association, this book has been challenged "for 'divisive language' and because it was thought to promote anti-police views."
It is clear that a lot of the criticism of this book comes directly from police and police support groups and unions. For example: Last year, a Minnesota police group complained about this book, asking that the Minnesota Department of Health stop recommending it and claiming that it "demonizes police officers." This year, a police union in Binghamton, New York requested and received an apology from their local school district for reading this book in schools.
Taking a look at one-star reviews for this book on platforms such as Goodreads, Amazon, and Google, it is clear to see that those who dislike this book object to the idea of any depiction of police violence at all--particularly in children's literature--and view such a depiction as anti-police propaganda. Given that these claims against the book are being made despite the fact that the book literally states, "There are many cops, Black and White, who make good choices," it is pretty blatantly apparent that no level of honesty with respect to the very real fact regarding discrimination and police violence within America would be acceptable for these reviewers. Furthermore, from the language these one-star reviewers use, when they claim that this book "teaches [children] to be racists," they are claiming that having an honest discussion with children about the prejudice and discrimination Black people face in America is somehow racist against White people (a position which is offensive, harmful, and absurd).
My experience of Something Happened in Our Town is that it is a thoughtful, nuanced, and invaluable resource to depict and promote a positive, healthy discussion of very difficult issues which children in America cannot avoid. BIPOC children cannot avoid racism, as they are often victims of racist prejudice and discrimination. White children similarly cannot avoid racism, as they witness it enacted around them, and as they may themselves come to believe that they (and other White people) are actually superior to other people. At the very least, White children may not realize their privilege, and that ignorance of privilege lends towards a refusal to acknowledge systemic racism--which refusal further leads to continuation of that same racism.
In a recent article on the Intellectual Freedom Blog (a blog published and maintained by the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom), Jamie Gregory interviews the authors of Something Happened in Our Town. It is well worth the time to read the full interview, but two quotes from the authors, in particular, stood out to me:
All children need access to stories that reflect themselves and their own experiences as well as the experiences of others. This encourages the development of a healthy self-concept and high self-esteem. This also enables children to develop a sense that they, and people who may look like and share similarities with them, are valued and have a place and a purpose within humanity.
Reading children books featuring diverse characters and stories is one strategy which can mitigate the negative effects of racism. These stories help children see themselves as valued and empowered. Books presenting Black characters overcoming obstacles build resilience and a healthy racial identity. White children reading diverse books may develop greater respect and empathy for marginalized children. Recognizing their privilege and developing an anti-racist commitment can lead to a healthier identity for White children, one not based on a false sense of superiority over others.
We have two options for children's education in America:
There is both a historical leaning towards and, as even a cursory familiarity with today's headlines should make clear, there is currently an active movement in support of the second option. Our only hope for actually improving our society, however, lies in the first option.
As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.”
Those who call for anti-racist books like this one to be removed from schools and libraries are those who do not want to think critically about their world and their privileges, and do not want to be faced with the shame they should feel; they should be ashamed.
See the book, read by the authors, on YouTube:
A Challenged Books Challenge
This is the sixth installment in the series of 10 book reviews I will be doing as part of my challenge to read and review all of the ALA's Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020. Read more about this challenge, including the other books involved, here. The first installment (my review of George) can be found here, the second installment (my review of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You) can be found here, the third (my review of All American Boys) can be found here, the fourth (my review of Speak) can be found here, and the fifth (my review of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) can be found here.
The next book I will be reviewing is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Look for that review here on my blog on July 23.
Elizabeth Wilcox. Writer, Avid Role-Player, Amateur Mixologist. Survivor.